Selim III (1761-1808), the twenty-eighth Ottoman sultan, was a late-18th-century reformer who sought to end the stagnation and decay weakening the empire.
Born on Dec. 24, 1761, Selim was the son of Mustafa III and successor to his uncle Abdul Hamid I, who died April 7, 1789. As a youth, the new sultan had benefited from a moderately free existence in contrast to the century-old custom of caging Osmanli princes. He was better educated then most of his recent predecessors.
Selim initially devoted himself to prosecuting the 2-year-old Austro-Russian War, an outgrowth of the first detailed plan to divide the Ottoman Empire, drawn up by Austria and Russia in 1782. The Peace of Sistova, in August 1791, involved no territorial changes with Austria, but the Peace of Jassy (laşi), in January 1792, advanced the Russian border to the Dniester.
Profiting from unrest in Europe which preoccupied his enemies, Selim introduced domestic reforms to strengthen his government. He solicited suggestions throughout the governing institutions. As a basis for change, he created a new treasury, filled, in large part, from confiscatory punishment leveled at fief holders who had ceased to respect their military obligations.
Among the changes was an attempt to curtail the grand vizier's power by enlargement of the Divan and insistence that important issues be brought before it. Schools were opened, attention was given to printing and to the circulation of Western translations, and young Turks were sent to Europe for further study. The most significant reforms, however, involved the military. The navy was strengthened, and a navigation school was opened. The army commissariat was changed, officer training was improved, the Bosporus forts were strengthened, the artillery was revitalized, and the new engineering school was reorganized. Foreign advisers, largely French, assisted.
The major innovation was the founding of a new body of regular troops known as nizam-i-jedid (new regulation), a term also applied to the reforms as a whole. The first of these new units, uniformed, well disciplined and drilled, was formed in 1792 by a former Turkish lieutenant in the Russian army. Other units followed, involving, in some instances, extensive barracks building with related town facilities, such as the mosques and baths of Scutari. Such buildings constitute Selim's major architectural legacy.
On the international scene all remained peaceful until 1798, although foreign affairs received considerable attention. New resident embassies were established in Britain, France, Prussia, and Austria. Selim, a cultured poet and musician, carried on an extended correspondence with Louis XVI. Although distressed by the establishment of the republic in France, the Porte (Ottoman government) was soothed by French representatives in Istanbul who maintained the goodwill of various influential personages, including the later Swedish minister, Mouradgea d'Ohsson, whose Tableau de l'Empire Othoman (1820) provides a good overview of this period.
On July 1, 1798, however, French forces landed in Egypt, and Selim declared war on France on September 4. In alliance with Russia and Britain, the Turks were in periodic conflict with the French on both land and sea until March 1801. Peace came in June 1802.
The following year brought trouble in the Balkans. For decades a sultan's word had had no power in outlying provinces, prompting Selim's reforms of the military in order to reimpose central control. This desire was not fulfilled. One rebellious leader was Austrian-backed Osman Pasvanoglu, whose invasion of Wallachia in 1801 inspired Russian intervention, resulting in greater autonomy for the Dunubian provinces.
Serbian conditions also deteriorated. They took a fateful turn with the return, in 1799, of the hated Janissaries, ousted 8 years before. These forces murdered Selim's enlightened governor, ending the best rule this province had had in the last 100 years. Their defiant, outrageous actions prompted the anti-Janissary revolt of 1804. Neither arms nor diplomacy could restore Ottoman authority.
French influence with the Porte did not revive until 1806, but it then led the Sultan into defying both St. Petersburg and London, and Turkey joined Napoleon's Continental System. War was declared on Russia on December 27 and on Britain in March 1807. Meanwhile, reform efforts had continued, but in March 1805 a general levy for new troops had led the Janissaries to revolt. These events culminated in the murder of reform leaders and, on May 29, 1807, the deposition of Selim. He was charged with childlessness and the use of military innovations to incite revolt.
Incarcerated in the saray, or palace, by his cousin, the new sultan Mustafa IV, Selim occupied himself instructing Mustafa's brother Mahmud in the art of government. On July 28, 1808, he was executed, as supporters, demanding his reinstatement, broke down the palace gates. Mustafa gained nothing, however; he was replaced by Mahmud II.
Further Reading on Selim III
For general biographical information on Selim III see A. D. Alderson, Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty (1956). V. J. Puryear, Napoleon and the Dardanelles (1951), considers diplomacy.